Just shy of fifty years after the release of the single of the same name, the good vibrations of The Beach Boys continue to resonate far outside of the band’s native Southern California – in fact, they can be felt around the world. Mike Love, currently leading the group for another endless summer of touring with Bruce Johnston and longtime sideman Jeffrey Foskett, is about to release his autobiography on September 13. One month later, on October 11, I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir arrives in stores from the Beach Boys’ leader, who himself is on a world tour through November 6 accompanied by Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin, Billy Hinsche and his long-serving band. With all of this reflection in the Beach Boys’ camps, the time has never been better for a look back at the very beginning – and by that. I do mean the very beginning.
Omnivore Recordings, in association with the band’s own Brother Records, has just issued Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite and Dorinda Morgan Sessions on two CDs (OVCD-186). This ambitious collection, first mooted nearly two decades ago but halted for a variety of reasons, presents nine songs recorded by the embryonic Beach Boys on four dates between September 1961 and March 1962. Complete, in this instance, means complete: “every surviving take, false start, master take and every second of studio banter,” per the liner notes.
The nine songs – presented in excellent sound – encompass three bona fide classics (“Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl” – the latter two of which still show up in virtually every Beach Boys setlist today) and six more songs that have been packaged and repackaged ad infinitum on budget compilations: “Luau,” “Lavender,” “Judy,” “Beach Boy Stomp” (a.k.a. “Karate”), “Barbie” and “What is a Young Girl Made Of.” DCC Compact Classics and Varese Sarabande have both addressed this period on collector-oriented releases in the past, but Omnivore’s edition boasts over 40 previously unreleased tracks out of 62 cuts.
Though the sound and style of these recordings is undeniably primitive, there’s nonetheless quite a kick to be had here. This is a true fly-on-the-wall experience capturing the moments that Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine (aged between 15 and 20) of Hawthorne, California first raised their voices together in front of a studio microphone and altered the course of not only their own lives and careers, but of popular music itself. It’s clear to see why the group enthralled Hite and Dorinda Morgan, owners of the Stereo Masters studio on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
Brian and Mike’s original composition “Surfin'” – the modest, little three-chord song that led to not just “Surfin’ Safari” but “Surfin’ USA,” “Catch a Wave,” “The Surfer Moon” and so on – opens this collection in its original demo plus eight takes and a master. With each successive take, the group’s confidence seems to grow. “Surfin'” is appealing for its simplicity, as well as its bold opening proclamation (“Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me…”), the already-present group harmonies, and the irresistible doo-wop bass vocalizations likely inspired by future pals and collaborators Jan and Dean.
The band’s development as singers, songwriters and musicians can be traced throughout these takes (as well as the masters originally released on labels including Candix, X and Era.) “Surfin’ Safari” has some different lyrics than on the familiar version; vocally, even the master take is ragged compared to the slicker, more robust re-recording made in April 1962. Perhaps the most striking of these sessions are those dedicated to Brian’s first composition, “Surfer Girl” – six takes plus a master and finally a frankly bizarre vocal overdub from an unknown vocalist. At first, the song lacks a finished bridge as well as the recognizable intro and backbeat. It’s also in a different key, and lacks Brian’s soaring falsetto. (The completed bridge and the falsetto first appear on the master.) The result is a darker, even somber take on the song compared to the classic version recorded in June 1963. Yet even without the richer instrumentation and fuller production of the later recording, there’s no doubt in any of these takes of its ethereal beauty. Like “Surfer Girl,” the slight, upbeat and doo wop-flavored “Judy” was inspired by Brian’s early love Judy Bowles. 15-year old Carl’s first composition, the primal surf guitar instrumental “Beach Boy Stomp,” is also featured here via rehearsals, session takes and overdubs.
A handful of tracks came from the Morgans’ own pens. The energetic “Luau” has a fun “Loop-de-Loop luau” hook sung by bass Mike, and features the solo Brian’s expressive voice on the bridge; Dennis also takes a couple of solo lines. (He sounds impossibly youthful, especially given the dark and plaintive nature of his finest work to come.) The guitar work by Carl, the youngest of the band at 15, also progresses from the first demo to the final master take. The words, written by Dorinda Morgan, even anticipate the escapism which would become a trademark of Mike Love as a lyricist: “You don’t have to live in the islands to have a lot of fun/Just pretend your patio’s an island in the sun…”
Dorinda’s pretty ballad “Lavender,” which dated a few years back to 1958, showcases the heavy influence of The Four Freshmen on Brian Wilson as a vocal arranger. There’s a purity to the initial a cappella rehearsals that outshine the final (but still spare) Take 4; one can’t help but wonder what a Dick Reynolds orchestral arrangement of the tune would have sounded like. The song’s multiple takes also afford the chance to hear Brian already sounding every bit the producer – even before that term became commonplace in pop music.
The final two cuts on Becoming the Beach Boys are credited to Kenny and the Cadets – Brian, Carl and mom Audree Wilson plus Al Jardine and Val Poliuto. Both “Barbie” and “What is a Young Girl Made Of” were first released on Randy Records, written by Dorinda and credited to her son Bruce Morgan. The ballad “Barbie,” a tribute to the doll made famous by Hawthorne’s Mattel company, has Brian on exquisite falsetto. The sugary-sweet “What is a Young Girl Made Of” (one possible answer mooted in the song: “everything that’s nice,” of course!) has Brian singing over a prerecorded track with a female chorus; a piano demo with an unknown session vocalist is also included for completeness’ sake.
Omnivore’s release, produced by the label’s Brad Rosenberger from audio produced and mastered by longtime Beach Boys associate Mark Linett, is a significant historical find. Housed in an attractive digipak, the copiously-illustrated booklet is generously annotated by Jim Murphy, author of Becoming the Beach Boys 1961-1963. The book goes into even greater detail about this largely unknown, pre-Capitol Records period of the group’s history. This isn’t a casual listen for a casual fan, nor is it likely to inspire much repeat listening. It is, however, manna for the serious collector, and moreover, a fascinating missing link and compelling journey back in time to the very beginning of the group that’s rightfully earned the designation of “America’s band.” Surf’s up!